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Albright will try again for peace

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright failed Monday to achieve a breakthrough in the stalled Middle East peace process, but she postponed her return to Washington to try again today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Albright's spokesman, James Rubin, said the secretary had not yet seen "compelling evidence the meetings will yield a breakthrough."

U.S. officials have declined to spell out what their next step will be if the talks fail, but there has been speculation they would put public pressure on Netanyahu to be more forthcoming on the West Bank troop-withdrawal issue.

Rubin presented the stakes in the talks in stark terms. "The peace process stalemate has gone on for too long," he said. "A failure to put the process back on track will carry with it grave risks of violence and disillusionment in the Middle East."

Albright met for 4{ hours with Netanyahu at his hotel, received Arafat for an hour and 45 minutes at her hotel, went back to see Netanyahu again in the evening and then called it a day.

She scheduled another meeting with Netanyahu for 8 a.m. today. U.S. officials said her program after that was not fixed, but she is expected to have a further meeting with Arafat.

Albright was supposed to testify before a congressional committee in Washington today but she canceled that so she could make one last try to bring the two leaders to an agreement.

The United States is reported to have put forward a proposal that calls for Israel to withdraw from 13.1 percent of the occupied West Bank, but Israeli officials have indicated Netanyahu is prepared to yield only 11 percent.

The Palestinians have made clear that is not enough. Although they originally demanded a 30 percent withdrawal, they have accepted the 13 percent proposal. The Palestinian Authority already controls the Gaza Strip and 27 percent of the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War.

Asked whether he was prepared to go the "extra mile" for peace, Netanyahu said: "We have gone the extra mile, well beyond the extra mile."

After the initial round of talks, Arafat told reporters that Netanyahu would have to accept responsibility for the "repercussions and chaos" that will ensue if the negotiations fail because of "his negative attitude to the American proposal."

Rubin said the terms of withdrawal were not the only crucial issue, as they were linked to the question of Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation that Israelis see as necessary to allow them to feel they can withdraw safely.

The American spokesman said a recent Palestinian crackdown on the terrorist organization Hamas was encouraging, but "we believe more could be done."